In all the discussion of the sanctions on Iran and what effect they’re having, analysts have forgotten a major factor. The US, Iran, and Europe aren’t the only geopolitical actors in the world. We don’t operate in a sealed vacuum in which the interests and intentions of others have no meaning. And from the perspective of these others – especially Russia, China, and India – what the US is doing with sanctions could well be the beginning of an attempt to destabilize Iran on their doorstep.
The strategic drivers
Once Iran is destabilized, the picture gets murkier from the standpoint of a great Asian power. Either the US has a specific plan to re-stabilize Iran – which would probably reestablish a US presence there – or the Obama administration really doesn’t understand how alarming the prospect of a destabilized Iran is, and has no plan. In either case, the potential outcome is worrisome or undesirable. Asian leaders can’t just sit there and watch something develop without preparing for what might happen.
The question is not whether they will prepare, but what they will do. India is an important factor, because whoever she aligns more closely with – Russia, presumably – will derive advantage from that. But in terms of actively trying to shape the outcome in Iran, the actors with capability and history are Russia and China. Both of them want to wield the major Asian influence over Iranian policy, and – perhaps more importantly – neither is willing to see the other gain the upper hand.
The basic conditions, which always have to be explained to Westerners, are geographic. Iran naturally commands the Persian Gulf and anchors Southwest Asia. She is the major power across the Caspian Sea from Russia. Her population is vigorous and educated; she has a unifying national idea from out of the depths of history that no other nation in her immediate vicinity can claim.
Iran is a tremendous prize; neither Russia nor China is so foolish as to imagine ruling her directly, but obtaining her as a client is viewed by both as a major power-and-security move. It would give them a foothold closer to the “Great Crossroads” of the Middle East-Africa-Europe juncture than either has yet obtained.
What Russia and China will not tolerate, if they can help it, is an Iran that falls either to the other or to the influence of the United States. The Russians and Chinese have both made it clear, in numerous ways, that they are not willing participants in any global vision the US may choose to operate on. They are no more interested in waiting for Barack Obama to reorder the world for them, through his trademark passive-aggressive approach, than they were for Bush II, Clinton, or Bush I to do it by their methods.
Potential courses of action
What can Russia and China do to respond to the toughened sanctions being imposed on Iran? They can breach the sanctions; they can prepare for what they perceive to be US intentions; and they can seek to influence the political outcome in Iran, where the leadership is increasingly in disarray and may indeed lose its footing as the bite of sanctions intensifies.
It would not be difficult at all for Russia to continue to trade with Iran. Russia has what no other G-8 power has: an inland sea shared with Iran, where conventional US or NATO forces would find operations inconvenient in the extreme, both logistically, militarily, and politically. China does not enjoy that advantage, but there are other ways into Iran, such as through Afghanistan and Iraq. The US and NATO don’t control all the roads through Afghanistan, and the US no longer patrols the border between Iraq and Iran.
Certainly, the most convenient method of trading in oil and gas products with Iran is through the network of maritime terminals set up in the south. But with the help of an outside partner, Iran could adapt relatively quickly to a different logistic footprint.
Meanwhile, we should not discount the options Iran may have from her southern coast. The sanctions-evasion industry that grew up around Iraq between 1991 and 2003 involved actors in Iran, the UAE, and Oman (non-government actors in the latter two, to be sure, but the governments did little to interdict their activities. See here for an analysis from 2009 of Iran’s evasion options). Someone in the Persian Gulf is always up for profiting from sanctions evasion, and if the contraband network involved Russia, China, India, or other interested nations as clients, its appeal would only be increased.
The banking sanctions can certainly hurt Iran a great deal in the short term, but they also create conditions in which it would be an indispensable relief for a nation like Russia or China to come in with cash under the table. Neither Moscow nor Beijing would do that out of compassion; the purpose would be to influence the course of political events in Tehran. Against the assumption that the mullahs would have nothing to do with them must be set the reality that economic conditions are deteriorating rapidly. The regime has a survival problem.
Since the end of World War II, both Russia and China have sought repeatedly to secure influence abroad by bolstering miscreant regimes against the policies of the West. They have had varying degrees of success, but the point to be disproven today is not why they would attempt it with Iran, but why they wouldn’t. We can assume without demur that both Moscow and Beijing have an active interest in “picking” the leadership that will establish itself out of a destabilized Iran.
My own view is that if the US took a more active interest in cultivating a new leadership from among the liberalizing elements in Iran, we would have a good opportunity to succeed. Iranians have no illusions about the intentions of Russia or China. The idea that those nations’ purposes would be more consonant with the sentiments of Iranians, whether the political leaders or the average people, is laughable.
But successful support of this kind cannot be accomplished without an overtly articulated moral and political case for it. The best way Obama could help Iranian reformers is by stating that the US is behind them. Reagan’s success with this approach stands out against decades of failure with the more Obama-like ambivalent rhetoric from both Democrats and Republicans. You cannot induce at-risk nations into liberalizing by applying secret-squirrel methods inside a cone of political silence. This is a case in which the only effective approach is to state your intentions and lead from the front.
The military aspect
Besides breaching the sanctions and seeking to foster a client regime in Iran, Russia, in particular, can be – and is – preparing to counter US/NATO military action. That doesn’t mean China has made no “military” noises; in fact, a Chinese general has been quoted as saying that a US attack on Iran would launch World War III. China has conducted major military exercises with Pakistan – Iran’s neighbor to the east – this past year; has a military build-up underway in Pakistan’s northern territories (namely, Gilgit-Baltistan); and has a growing and respectable capability to project power in the Indian Ocean. (At the end of December, the Russian navy also had talks with the Seychelles about using Port Victoria for Russian naval operations.)
But Russia’s territory abuts Iran’s to the north, and the Caucasus and Central Asian ‘Stans are the southern flank of Moscow’s “near abroad.” The Russians are worried – to the extent of moving troops to the south, near the border with Turkey, evacuating families from military posts in the Caucasus, and conducting a large military exercise in the Caspian Sea, simulating the defense of oil and gas interests against an attack by Western forces. The oil and gas infrastructure in the Caspian Sea belongs to multiple nations; one implication of the Russian exercise is that Russia wants to be able to pursue joint commercial interests with Iran in spite of sanctions, and that the Caspian Sea is the nexus of that intention. Supposing that Russia merely intends to “help Iran” by defending Iranian assets is too narrow an interpretation.
Russia is also building both a case and a capability to eliminate Georgia as a potential base for US operations – and to secure Georgian territory for logistic support to Russian forces in Armenia. Multiple sources quote Russian military leaders as complaining that their logistic freedom is constrained by Georgia’s denial of a key transport route. And in mid-December, the chairman of the Russian Security Council – not an anonymous functionary, but the chairman himself – announced that Moscow was worried about a force of terrorists supposedly being readied in Georgia for attacks on Russia, specifically attributing this to Georgian government policy.
While manufacturing a case against Georgia, Russia has also consolidated the command structure of her Black Sea naval forces and put them at the highest readiness level (see RT link above). These are the ships that will blockade Georgia in the case of a Russian takeover.
Many readers are also aware that Russia has dispatched a naval task force to the Mediterranean, built around the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. The naval love-fest continues between Russia and Greece: Kuznetsov conducted flight operations in Greek waters on 5-6 January, and her escorts pulled into Tartus, Syria on the 7th. From the Kremlin, Kuznetsov’s presence looks as much like the spearhead of a potential deterrent against US action in the Black Sea as it does anything else. Of course, Russia intends to stake her claim on Syria and support the Assad regime, but since 2007, when Putin proclaimed a return of Russian force to the global stage, it has been wrong to interpret the strategic purposes of Russian deployments narrowly.
It’s also worth noting that Russia’s core security alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), conducted a major military exercise in September in which it simulated preventing the construction of a gas pipeline between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Such a pipeline could only get going with outside support from a presumably Western (perhaps Chinese) partner. Russia is starting to put serious ideas of military force behind her strategic concern that her rivals are all up in her Kool-Aid, and the actions of the Obama administration are having the opposite of a reassuring effect.
Russia’s preparations for something that many Americans reflexively assume will not happen are both extensive and expensive. In the wake of his inconsistent responses to the Arab Spring revolts, it is logical for Russia and other nations to read Obama as unpredictable, and to see him as dismissive of the repercussions of his policies for the rest of the world.
Obama’s lack of strategic understanding will only carry US policy so far. Iran has more options than simply collapsing and hollering “Uncle!” under the Western sanctions. Any of those options entails a major shift of power liaisons in the Eastern hemisphere. Team Obama seems to be proceeding as if none of that matters. But it does.